Athletics 5, Orioles 4

The Baltimore Orioles gave Sidney Ponson the unlikeliest of gifts Wednesday night -- an early four-run lead against Oakland Athletics ace lefty Mark Mulder, the American League's Cy Young favorite at the season's three-quarters pole. For Ponson, at that point, the game became a litmus test: An ace holds the lead and wins this game. A pseudo-ace blows it.

Ponson might have been alright if it weren't for A's designated hitter Erubiel Durazo. And ace reliever B.J. Ryan, who inherited the tie game after Ponson blew the lead, might have been alright, too -- if it weren't for Durazo.

By the time Durazo was done taking Ponson deep twice, and Ryan once -- an impressive, three-homer display of might that accounted for all of Oakland's runs -- the Orioles were on their way to a disturbing 5-4 loss, while the A's were wrapping up a three-game sweep that strengthened their hold on the AL West lead.

Durazo's third homer of the night -- an opposite-field shot off Ryan that came at the end of an intense, 10-pitch at-bat -- gave Mulder and the A's the lead in the top of the eighth inning and silenced a crowd of 40,603 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. It marked the first time an opponent has had a three-homer game in Camden Yards. It was only the second homer Ryan (3-3) has allowed to a left-handed batter in the last two years.

"If you're going to lose," Manager Lee Mazzilli said, "lose with your best."

Given a 4-0 lead against Mulder before the game was three innings old, Ponson gave the whole thing back within three more innings, on a pair of two-run homers by Durazo in the fourth and sixth innings.

"[When] the guys give me four runs, we should beat this team," Ponson said. "That should've been enough. . . . I had nothing today. I had no command."

Durazo hit a low 2-2 slider for his first homer, and a belt-high first-pitch fastball for his second -- "Slider down the middle, fastball down the middle," Ponson said -- and in each case, Ponson had put the leadoff hitter on base just before Durazo came to the plate, making it nearly impossible to pitch around him.

Perhaps the Orioles had come to expect more of Ponson, whom they gave a three-year $22.5 million contract this winter to succeed in situations such as this. He was a lost cause in the season's first half, going 3-12 and getting everyone in the organization, from the training staff to the owner, upset at him.

The new Ponson -- 20 pounds lighter than he was in May, newly dedicated to the craft of pitching, the winner of five straight decisions -- was supposed to have been different.

But by the start of the seventh -- the point where the Orioles might have liked Ponson to be digging in for the late innings -- he was gone, relieved of his duties and replaced by Ryan. In the pivotal at-bat, Durazo fouled off a pair of 3-2 pitches before connecting on a fastball on the outside corner.

"I went to my strength and tried to beat him to the corner," Ryan said, "but he beat me there."

Mulder (16-4) became the majors' first 16-game winner this season, but the Orioles made him work for it, putting up two runs in both the second and third innings. Shortstop Miguel Tejada, a former A's mainstay, was pivotal both times, stretching a single into a double and later scoring in the second, then driving in a run with a single in the third.

The A's "big three" of Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito are now a combined 8-1 with 1.35 ERA against the Orioles since May 2002, including wins by Hudson and Mulder the last two nights.

The Orioles certainly were not helped by their tenuous injury situation. They found out on Wednesday that center fielder Jerry Hairston is out for the season with a broken ankle, and also placed left fielder Larry Bigbie on the disabled list. In addition, catcher Javy Lopez was out of the lineup with a sore back.

"The guys are going to have to dig deep," Mazzilli said. "They know that. But that's what this team is made of."

Shortstop Miguel Tejada makes a quick throw to catch Oakland's Marco Scutaro at first, but Tejada's former team won in Baltimore for 3rd straight night.